The Reader Summary

Extended Summary

Michael Berg is fifteen years old when he suddenly becomes ill with hepatitis. On his way home from school, he is leaning against a building on Bahnhofstrasse vomiting when a woman grabs his arm and runs the nearby tap. He begins to cry, so the woman walks him home. Michael is bedridden for weeks, and when he is well enough to go out, his mother sends him to the woman’s home with flowers to thank her for aiding Michael. He does not know the woman’s name, so a neighbor has to point him to Frau Schmitz’s apartment on the third floor. Her apartment is spare, and inside, she is ironing in a sleeveless smock with her hair tied back in a clip. Michael watches her slow, deliberate movements. When it is time for Michael to leave, Frau Schmitz tells him that she will walk with him, so he waits for her out on the stairs while she changes her clothes. But the door is slightly ajar, and Michael watches her change. Somehow she senses him watching and she glances at him. Michael is embarrassed, so he runs down the stairs into the street. Walking home, Michael is ashamed because he was not able to have more self-control.

Michael is still not well enough to return to school and his days are filled with fantasies. One week later, he finds himself again at Frau Schmitz’s apartment. She is not home, and he waits more than an hour for her to return from her work as a streetcar conductor. She invites him inside and sends him to fetch coal from the cellar. Michael makes a mess of himself with the coal, so Frau Schmitz offers to run him a bath. Michael becomes aroused and while Frau Schmitz is drying him off, she touches him. The two make love in the kitchen and Michael soon falls in love with Frau Schmitz. Meanwhile, he demands to his parents that he be allowed to return to school. His father submits, but Michael looks forward to future rendezvous with Frau Schmitz.

Michael begins cutting classes to meet Frau Schmitz at her apartment where the two shower and make love. Michael eventually learns that her name is Hanna. During their talk, Hanna discerns that Michael has been cutting classes to see her and she becomes irate; she insists that he attend school if he wants to keep seeing her. Michael cannot bear to be without Hanna, so during the next several weeks, he works hard to pass his classes. One evening, Michael tells Hanna that he must catch up on some of his reading and Hanna asks him to read aloud to her, telling him that he has a nice voice and that she would rather hear him read than read the books herself. From then on, Michael happily reads aloud to her.

Easter vacation arrives, and Michael arranges a bicycling trip for the two. She allows Michael to make all the arrangements. One morning, Michael leaves a note for Hanna before he heads out to get breakfast and when he returns, she is in a rage, claiming that she never saw the note. Having witnessed Hanna’s vulnerability, Michael thinks that their relationship has moved into another realm. Michael invites Hanna to his home during the last week of vacation while his parents are away, and in his father’s study, Hanna gently touches all the books that line the shelves.

That summer, Michael and Hanna continue their routine of bathing, making love, reading, and lying next to each other in bed. But at school, Michael meets new friends and starts hanging out with his classmates at the nearby swimming pool. Michael feels he is betraying Hanna by never revealing their relationship to his friends, but he enjoys the mystery that he creates by either leaving early or arriving late at the pool to accommodate Hanna’s schedule. Later in the summer, Hanna is irritable and she sends Michael out to see his friends. She shows up at the pool, but Michael does not approach her. He looks away for a moment, and in that moment, Hanna vanishes.

The next day, Hanna is not home. Michael learns that she has moved out and quit her job. Michael is sick with guilt so he avoids walking past Hanna’s old apartment building. Slowly, he stops thinking of Hanna, and their relationship becomes a static memory. But during his university years, Michael is not much moved by anything: his classes, his friends, his romantic relationships. He exists in a happy, dispassionate blur....

(The entire section is 1736 words.)

The Reader Chapter Summaries

Part 1, Chapters 1-3 Summary

Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg becomes ill in the fall. On his way home from school one afternoon in October, he is immediately weak on his feet, and he cannot stop from vomiting. He leans against a building on Bahnhofstrasse and vomits on the sidewalk. Suddenly, a woman grabs his arm, and she runs water from the nearby tap. She cups water in her hands to clean Michael’s face; then she fills up two pails with water which she uses to clean the sidewalk. Michael begins to cry, so the woman wraps her arms around him. She walks him home, carrying his backpack in one hand and offering him support with the other. Later, the doctor diagnoses him with hepatitis. Michael soon becomes bedridden, and when he is well enough to go outside again, his mother tells him to take the woman some flowers, introduce himself, and thank her for coming to his rescue.

In later years, the house on Bahnhofstrasse is torn down, and the new building has a smooth façade of pale plaster. It houses many small apartments that are casually rented and vacated. But the old building is tall and made of sandstone blocks and brickwork. There are multiple balconies and arches on its front, and the stairway to the top floor narrows as it climbs higher into the building. When he is older, Michael often dreams of this building, but not in its place in Bern—he dreams of the building in other countries and is comforted by seeing a familiar place in a strange land. He dreams that he climbs the stairs and turns the knob, but he always wakes before he can go inside.

Michael does go to the woman’s apartment with flowers, but he does not know her name. A neighbor points him to Frau Schmitz on the third floor. The staircase is bare, and Michael recalls that he never got to know the other people who lived in the building. Inside, Frau Schmitz’s apartment is spare, and the kitchen is the largest room. The living room has the only window which looks out onto Bahnhofstrasse. Frau Schmitz is ironing, and Michael sits to watch her slow, deliberate movements. She wears a sleeveless smock, and her hair is tied in back with a clip. Looking back, Michael cannot remember her face as it was then—he sees her face as it was over the course of their later relationship. But when he reconstructs the initial image of her, he knows that she has a strong, broad, womanly face, and Michael thinks that she is beautiful.

Part 1, Chapters 4-6 Summary

Michael has to leave, but Frau Schmitz tells him to wait so that she can walk with him. She needs to change her clothes, so Michael waits in the hallway. The door to the kitchen is open a crack, so Michael watches Frau Schmitz get changed. Her slip veils her body, and she carefully rolls stockings up her legs. Michael cannot stop looking at her. Somehow, she senses him watching, and she glances at him. Michael cannot read any emotion behind her glance; he becomes incredibly embarrassed and bolts down the stairs into the street. He walks the familiar route through the neighborhood and is ashamed that he was not able to have more self control. Years later, Michael still does not really understand the reason for his intense attraction. He suspects that the way she moved with a disregard for the outside world caused his attraction, but he remains unsure.

One week later, Michael finds himself once again at Frau Schmitz’s door. His doctor has not yet cleared him to return to school, so his days are filled with fantasies. Friends stop by to visit less and less often, and Michael is only left with his intense imagination. He is ashamed when on some mornings he wakes to find that his pants are damp, yet he knows that he is not totally innocent of his nighttime dreams because in the daytime he actively fantasizes about being with Frau Schmitz. Michael cannot confide his desire to anyone for fear of being lectured with loving concern. Michael does not know how he finds the courage to return to Frau Schmitz’s apartment, but he reasons that not going would be more dangerous because he would be left with his fantasies.

Michael rings the bell, but Frau Schmitz is not home. Wanting to see her and determined to wait, Michael sits in front of the door. More than an hour passes before Frau Schmitz ascends the stairs wearing her street car conductor’s uniform from work. She does not look surprised or shocked to see Michael, only tired. She is...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 7-9 Summary

The next night, Michael falls in love with Frau Schmitz. He does not understand why he has fallen in love with her and wonders if it is because he feels like he owes her the debt of love for having slept with him. Michael wants to show off his new-found manliness, so he decides that he will return to school the following day. He also reasons that since Frau Schmitz likely works evenings, he will have to pass by her apartment in the daytime to be with her.

After his rendezvous with Frau Schmitz, Michael returns home late and claims that he had been heading toward the cemetery and got lost and ended up in Nussloch. His older brother criticizes him and says that the two places are on opposite ends of town. Michael ignores...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 10-12 Summary

On the first day of Easter vacation, Michael rises at four in the morning to catch the streetcar to Schwetzingen because he knows that Hanna is working the early shift and that the streetcar will be empty. He boards the second streetcar, and he sees Hanna in the first talking to the driver. Michael debates whether he should go into the first car, but he decides that he likes the privacy of the empty second car and hopes that Hanna will come in for a kiss and a hug. But even after Hanna has glanced into the second car and has seen Michael, she does not come into the car. Hurt, Michael gets off the streetcar and walks all the way back home crying.

Later, Michael goes to Hanna’s doorstep when she returns from work. They...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 13-15 Summary

That summer, Michael is moved from tenth to eleventh grade, and since there are not enough students being promoted, his class is disbanded and integrated into the other three classes. Previously, Michael had been in a class with only boys, but now he is in a class with girls, and his new seat is next to a girl named Sophie. Michael feels very confident at the start of the school year; in the past, small setbacks shook his self-confidence and he convinced himself that he was worthless. But now, he feels at ease. While the class translates Homer’s The Odyssey which Michael loves, he thinks of the character Nausicaa and wonders if he should imagine her as Hanna or as Sophie.

Michael describes that summer as the...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Part 1, Chapters 16-17 Summary

Michael does not know what Hanna does with her time when she is not working and they are not together. He realizes that she only allows him to share a small space in her life and that he must be content with that. When Michael questions Hanna about her comings and goings, she laughs and says, “The things you ask, kid!” and either ducks the question or outright refuses to answer. Once upon Michael’s asking, Hanna runs down a list of household chores that she claims to do when he is not around.

Michael never runs into Hanna by accident on the street or in any of the places in town. He is surprised that he has not seen her at the movie theater because she loves the movies and will go to see any picture that is...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 1-3 Summary

For a while after Hanna leaves town, Michael looks for her everywhere he goes. He continues to yearn for her, and his brother says that at night he calls Hanna’s name. Michael is tortured by his feelings of guilt, and he changes his route to avoid passing by her former building. But slowly, he stops thinking of her every day, and she and their relationship become a solid memory.

Michael recalls that his last years of secondary school and his first years at university were happy and easy. He did not struggle with exams, made friends easily, and ended relationships without effort. He did not allow himself to get really involved in anything, and therefore, nothing shook or confused him. Even when he reconnected with...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 4-6 Summary

Michael attends the trial every day, and his professor is glad someone is there to brief the other students on the events of the trial from day to day. During the trial, Hanna keeps her eyes fixed on the bench—only once does she look at the audience and at Michael. During breaks, the other defendants meet with family members, but Hanna remains seated alone. Michael watches Hanna’s body language while she is being discussed during the trial. He notes how her body slumps slightly when she is being wronged, yet she never allows her head to fall. Michael also thinks about their past relationship, but the memory is “like a retrieved file.”

As the trial continues and Michael imagines Hanna guilty as accused, he goes...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 7-9 Summary

Hanna’s willingness to admit the role she played at Auschwitz annoys the other defendants, and her continual contradictions annoy the judge. However, Hanna’s description of the events plays favorably for the other defendants: there were other guards on duty as well as an entire hierarchical system under which the guards operated. A mother and daughter who are survivors of the burning church cannot testify about Hanna’s actions because they were inside the church and not privy to Hanna’s actions outside the church. Likewise, the villagers from the area cannot attest to Hanna’s guilt without implicating themselves—if they were so close as to view Hanna’s actions, why could they not overthrow the five female guards and...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 10-12 Summary

Michael has no memory of the Friday seminars, but he does remember vividly the Sundays when he would go off on his own to discover new areas. While wondering through the woods, he suddenly realizes that Hanna has been harboring a dark secret—she can neither read nor write. Michael puts together the clues that have been there all along: Hanna’s insistence that others read to her, turning down higher ranking jobs, admitting to writing the SS report. Michael wonders whether or not Hanna’s obvious fear of exposure drove her to commit terrible crimes over the course of the years, but in the end, he knows that Hanna is not an evil person and that she simply reacted out of fear of having her secret revealed. He realizes that Hanna...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 13-15 Summary

In June, all involved in the trial go to Israel to finish hearing testimony, but while there, the judge and prosecutors make a sight-seeing trip, extending their visit. While the trial is away, Michael plans to devote more time to his studies, but this does not happen. Instead, he is consumed with images of Hanna, both real memories, and sights created by his imagination. He imagines Hanna in a black uniform, hard-faced, standing in front of the church. He imagines her in the presence of a young girl who is reading to her before Hanna sends her back to Auschwitz. And then Michael imagines Hanna as he knew her, putting on her stockings, standing in his father’s study, riding her bicycle. Michael knows that all these images are...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Part 2, Chapters 16-17 Summary

Michael cannot face Hanna, so he decides instead to approach the presiding judge. He cannot find the words to say to Hanna, but even though he feels betrayed by her, Michael cannot settle with doing nothing. Also, part of him feels that he needs to get revenge on Hanna by meddling with her private affairs. The judge knows that the seminar group has been attending the trial, so he gladly invites Michael into his office. He makes easy conversation with Michael about the seminar, the general atmosphere of the trial, university studies, exams, and the law. Michael answers all of the judge’s questions, but he cannot bring himself to have the intended conversation. Soon Michael hears through the open window all the sounds of people...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 1-3 Summary

After the trial, Michael spends most of his time in the university library, avoiding contact with friends. He is asked to join a group of friends on a skiing trip and although he is not a good skier, he agrees to go. On the trip, Michael keeps up with the skilled skiers, often risking broken bones and other injuries to do so. And he skies without proper warm clothing, claiming that he does not feel the cold. When he eventually becomes feverish, he welcomes the feeling of padded senses that comes with the illness. Michael is taken to the hospital and made well; he misses the deadened feeling that came with the fever because now all his feelings associated with the trial have resurfaced.

Michael finishes his studies and...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 4-6 Summary

The time comes when Michael needs to find a job in the legal profession, but he shies away from what he sees as the grotesque roles of prosecutors, defenders, and judges. He is thrilled when he is offered the job of researcher by a professor of legal history even though Gertrud says that he is running away from real-life responsibilities. Michael agrees that he is running away, and he is happy to be away from others to pursue a quiet love of the law. Michael, however, knows that by studying the past, he cannot escape the present as the historian's role is to bridge the past and the present.

Michael re-reads The Odyssey shortly after he and Gertrud separate. But he often falls asleep reading in the middle of...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 7-9 Summary

Taking for granted the close yet removed relationship he has with Hanna, Michael does not consider the fact there will come a day when Hanna is released from prison. He knows that he is selfish in desiring their contact to continue in such a way indefinitely. But one day, he receives a letter from the prison warden saying that the following year Hanna’s plea for clemency will likely be granted and that he is her only connection to the outside world. The warden writes that life in the community can be difficult after such a long incarceration and asks that Michael assist Hanna in finding an apartment and a job and that he visit her after her release. Michael obliges by finding her a low-cost apartment attached to the home of a...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Part 3, Chapters 10-12 Summary

The next morning, Hanna hangs herself. When Michael arrives at the prison, he is taken immediately to the warden who asks him about their telephone conversation the previous day and their meeting the previous week. Michael honestly claims that he had no inclination that Hanna would kill herself. The warden asks about Michael’s relationship with Hanna. He tells her that he and Hanna had both lived in the same neighborhood and that as a student, he attended her trial proceedings. Michael feels like he is about to cry when the warden asks him about his reason for sending her the tapes. When asked how he knew that Hanna was illiterate, Michael shrugs his shoulders.

The warden takes Michael to Hanna’s room; Hanna had...

(The entire section is 661 words.)